Disability Life, Mystic Style

Disability was not my birthright but it became my blueprint. Jefferson said “all men are created equal” and the phrase haunts America. Jefferson loved Joseph Priestley. the scientist who discovered the properties of oxygen. “We hold these truths to be self evident” means they are “in the air”. Equality is in the air. We are equal with our first breaths. Your difference isn’t you, only your equal place, your hydrogen. And then you must become an architect. That is what Jefferson meant by “the pursuit of happiness”. Thomas Jefferson who built and rebuilt his house at Monticello for over forty years.

Building is harder then deconstruction. It is easy to theorize the deleterious effects of neoliberal biopolitics on the fates of outsiders, by which I mean, that while this work must be done, such work seldom proposes (at least to my mind) what is best about the humanities—that proposition about what a man or woman might build. What will be your blueprint? What is the house you will build and tear down and build again? I submit the blueprints of equality are not polemical or ideological at all. They are mystic. By which I mean subject to delicate attention, that delicacy which unites architects and poets. Here is D.H. Lawrence’s famous poem on the matter:

They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the 

       experience is considered.

So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it

the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth

and the insistence of the sun.

All of which things I can surely taste in a good apple.

Though some apples taste preponderantly of water, wet and sour

and some of too much sun, brackish sweet

like lagoon-water, that has been too much sunned.

If I say I taste these things in an apple, I am called mystic, which

       means a liar.

The only way to eat an apple is to hog it down like a pig

and taste nothing

that is real.

But if I eat an apple, I like to eat it with all my senses awake.

Hogging it down like a pig I call the feeding of corpses.

     

To paraphrase the old joke about Freud: sometimes an apple is just an apple. But our senses, they are the lines of our blueprints.

The encomiums of justice are dependent on a severity of intellect, the ongoing critique of the past. Jefferson did not eat apples on his mountain and say, “this is better than liberty”. The effects of neoliberalism on the poor stand straight before us. The migrant crisis is a visible and glaring effect of post-modern capitalism and represents its injustices. But I submit political awareness will not save a single man or woman without all the senses awake. This is the blueprint. What if the apple is more than an apple?

Of Rachmaninoff’s Hands and Oliver Sacks’ Beard

I wash my fingers in cold water and think of Rachmaninoff who, learning he was dying, went to his study, shut the door, and said farewell to his hands. Perhaps there’ll be music where we’re going, but the drama of personal death has everything to do with saying goodbye to the embodied music that has made it possible to live.

When I woke this morning and read of the passing of Oliver Sacks I thought, “he had to say goodbye to his wonderful beard” and then I imagined the great neurologist’s beard as a forested antenna transmitting aleatoric music of the cosmos straight into his brain.

If such speculations help, they help. And of course they’re conceits, at best educated guesses.

We know there’s music out there. We know we’ve picked some of it up in our curves and dimples.

Once, while visiting the LaScala opera house in Milan, I saw Giuseppe Verdi’s boyhood piano. You could see where Verdi’s father had written with pencil on the keys the positions of the notes. At first I thought, “that’s so his son could see the notes, place his fingers…” Then I realized it was so his son could hear what his fingers produced.

Body. Music. Prologue. Whatever comes next.

Note: I’m not arguing God is in the gaps—this small homage to musical possibilities beyond our mortal coil has nothing to do with the intelligent design crowd. Things vibrate. I exult in this fact because every vibration gives the tympanic membrane something to transmit.

I still miss Rachmaninoff’s hands and now I shall miss Oliver Sack’s beard-receiver.

 

Reading the Bird Braille

I spend the day tightening my fingers in the Greek way, in the Hipponax manner, putting my hands where they don’t belong, probing the guts of birds, nattering about the future. I am so tired. My nation has fallen on evil times. All my dark skinned brothers and sisters are exhausted. My crippled pals feel despair. A fingernail in the crow’s guts tells me there will be more fear. I trace a bilious organ of crow-ish appetite, read in Bird Braille there will be megalomania, corporate disdain, wars. Put your hand where it doesn’t belong. It’s a book you should know.

Ubu Ableism

ubuTheater of the Absurd...

The image on the left above is a sketch by Afred Jarry of Ubu Roi. The book cover on the right is from Maurice Marc LaBelle’s excellent study of the Theater of the Absurd. As a poet who happens to have a disability (this, in the vein of: as a writer who has green eyes, since its both a differentiating feature, and, simultaneously of little provenance, save there are some who think witches are most likely to have green eyes…a dilemma for some of us…) ahem, yes, as a poet with a disability I always bounce off the frontal carapace of Ubu-ableism, (you have to hand it to me, that was a strikingly coagulated sentence.)

Ubu-ableism differs from your run of the mill ableism. The latter is simple. It says, “there are places for these people.” ROM ableism is nothing more than rehabilitation sequestration. It survives everywhere, from the University of Iowa where the office of disability services is hidden in the basement of a dormitory and can only be reached by elevator. Or at Syracuse University where the office of disability services is on the top floor of a building and can only be reached by elevator. In the event of fire you must imagine there will be especially competent emergency personnel who are remarkably trained, who will especially save you, if you’re one of those disabled people, who only wanted to arrange some extra time to take a printed test. And now you’re in an emergency where you can’t roll out the door. Imagine. In any event, ROM ableism is essentially institutional thinking. Certainly the real estate is cheaper in the basement or on the top floor of an underutilized building. Come on, you wouldn’t want to put disability services smack dab in the center of your campus. People might see. They might think you don’t have a good school. I’m not wrong to say this. If you believe in your university and believe that students with disabilities are a source of excellence, than you’ll put your office of disability student services at the center of campus, as they did long ago at UC Berkeley.

Ubu-ableism is enhanced discrimination. It works like this: Ubu is in charge. He is (or she is) only concerned with greedy self-justification. Think of Ubu as Donald Trump wearing a military outfit.

Ubu thinks that the Americans with Disabilities Act is an unfunded mandate.

He thinks that the disabled are not “us” but those people.

He ardently believes they possess insufficient value in support of his quest for more goodies.

He is never shy about saying they should go away.

He sometimes runs academic conferences.

Sometimes he runs a chain of restaurants or a division of the Veterans Administration.

He advises on political campaigns.

He can be a pretend liberal like Ira Glass.

He’s certainly on the faculty of many universities.

His smile and his sneer are identical.

He calls for the end of social security.

Or she.

 

Alice Dreger, Academic Freedom, Northwestern University, and Borges

Academic freedom is always under attack in the US and abroad. One might conceivably write a joke about the subject which would end, “Oh, so it’s an old story.” Years ago I heard the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges confound a moist and utterly cerebral undergraduate at Cornell University—the occasion, a “symposium” on the work of Vladimir Nabokov; the poor kid with his ball cap backwards—by saying, “what about Nabokov?” Borges had been the “keynote” speaker, the star, who was expected (or so one imagined) to close the proceedings in Ithaca with a tight, eloquent, “proof” on the Nabokovian Éminence grise. Instead he spoke for fifteen minutes about play as the core ingredient of imagination. He alluded to card tricks. And never once did he mention the author of “Lolita”. He stopped. That is, he said something about  playfulness and stopped. He stopped like an old fashioned gramophone record. Borges’ needle had struck the paper label. There was wide silence. And it was long. There were perhaps 300 people in the auditorium. No one moved and no one spoke.

There were some in that room who must have thought Borges was having them on—a reflex at Cornell where the institution’s super-ego always imagines they’re not quite as good as the rest of the Ivy League. Borges must have been making fun of the assembly. (He was.) Or he may have been delivering an elementary sermon on inventiveness which true academics certainly didn’t feel they needed to hear. (He was.) Surely some of the faculty thought Borges was senescent. Ableism works that way. Perhaps the blind poet was out of his depth. But as I say, the silence of the crowd was substantial. I liked it. It was a Victorian silence, the absence of words was balanced on a tight line of epistemic bifurcation. One one side was the serious purpose inherent—Nabokov with a monumental Czarist “N”; on the other, a scurrilous Borgesian joke.

I was fresh back from a Fulbright year in Helsinki where I’d been studying the work of Pentti Saarikoski, A Finnish poet who many now consider to be the first truly post-modern writer. Saarikoski studied Greek and Latin, then Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Karl Marx—and perhaps not in that order but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the play that held his many influences together, and the principle was Heraclitus. Logos resists polarities. In any event I enjoyed the scholastic silence in that hot auditorium.

Then the kid said: “But what about Nabokov?” And Borges said: “Who is he?” “Well,” said the student, “you know, he wrote Lolita?” (By the mid-eighties American students everywhere had adopted that mannerism whereby all assertions must end with question marks—the aim, presumably, either to avoid being wrong, or to never offend anyone with a firm position—god knows.

“Who is Lolita?” Borges asked.

“Well you know,” said the student, “it’s the story of a teenaged girl maybe she’s 13, and she has an affair with a disreputable older man…?”

“Ah,” said Borges, “so it’s an old story.”

That was it for Nabokov. The show was over. A more perfect tribute to the master could not have been delivered.

Let’s be clear: freedom in the realm of inquiry is always a matter of playful risk. It can never be a matter of public relations.

I’m in mind of these things because this morning I read that Professor Alice Dreger, one of this nation’s pre-eminent scholars in the Medical Humanities has resigned her position at Northwestern University because the university has allowed its journal in medical ethics to become a vehicle for PR as opposed to free inquiry. You can read her story here.

It is an old story. Alice Dreger is principled and brave. I admire her.

I solemnly renounce Northwestern University’s medical school and its proprietary censorship.

I Have to Write Fast

I have to write fast. I’m theorizing extramundane fantasies. For instance: starlight takes shape of man, then decides this was a mistake, goes back to stars. True story if you’re Christian, I suppose.

Writing fast. People on Facebook still argue “who was better, the Beatles of Stones?” Aging Victorian Baby Boomers. Ugh. Who was better, Jefferson or Hamilton? Ben Franklin of course.

Dang. Need to read some Robert Browning. It’s been too long. Hey, Uncle Ez.

Jumping on wholly imagined trampoline for my friend Ralph who has a real one and isn’t feeling well.

when you open the book of life

if I hear my name

do I get to go look at it?

–Niilo Rauhala

translated from the Finnish by SK

Walking Song

A walking song. Hey feet, hey hands, hey hair, hey collar bone, just be you, and trust me, the crows won’t eat us, not today.

**

Drinking coffee. Dogs look for rabbits through big solarium windows.

**

Summer was short

We went to retrace our steps

At the edge of a sweet field

A black river took summer away

We dropped our walking

Prayed for the trees still budding

–Niilo Rauhala, translated from the Finnish by SK

**

Immanence and impermanence–my brothers. I think hard about you. Two crickets outside. Water falls on my wrist bone when I wash a cup.

**

Sometimes I talk too much. At other times I say nothing, drink water from a glass, move books from one table to another.

**

“Life is available only in the present moment.”

—Thich Nhat Hahn

Reprise: walking song…